L’idée Réelle

Trenton seems to have been a turning point for a lot of us. A little over a year ago on December 21st, when I left my former British regiment, I was told by the man in charge that I “won’t last a year with them (the progressives)” and “that you’ll be begging me to come back.” Well, here I am a year later and Trenton has cemented my place in this side of the hobby. It provided the group and I with the “history hard-on” (As I’m now calling it) that we seek to get from any event we go to. Isn’t that the purpose of doing this stuff anyways?

In between the silly songs and bad jokes on the march, we did have some deep discussion. For a sleep deprived, hungry, thirsty, and in pain group, we were pretty alert and philosophical. We crossed the bridge at Washington’s Crossing around what I assume was about 6:00 AM after a very brisk 5 miles. On the bridge, we were discussing our favourite fife and drum songs and roles of musicians. As we got off, that same French sailor who coined the term “history hard-on” asked me, “What’s your idée réelle (real idea)?” This threw me off. I was tired, hungry, and not quite sure if he was having a stroke as the sound of French at that time of day can do that to you. I asked him to put it in simpleton terms for me and he asked, “If you could sum up everything you want a visitor to know in one sentence, what would it be?”

I had to stop and think. I didn’t really have a good answer at this point. There are so many things about musicians I want visitors to walk away with since often times they come to battles with misconceptions of 12 year old boys banging on the drums and just looking cute. After a few moments of silence, I replied,  “I want them to know that musicians aren’t weak.”

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After all, I was portraying a fifer who was probably about 15 at the time. The young man gets handed a musket and told he’s going into battle with the rest of the company. He’s just as cold and miserable as the rest of the army.

A lot of guests come to these reenactments with that image of a young drummer boy that comes from the Spirit of ’76 and countless other films and T.V. shows. The average age of musicians in the Continental Army is about 19-20. (See John Rees’ article “The Music of the Army Part 1 and Part 2) Guests think the drummers and fifers just stand behind the line and bang out useless sounds. But we know they’re doing WAY more than that. If they’re not fighting in battle, they’re playing some commands, they’re carrying dead and wounded back, and they’re assisting the surgeon. 

After I gave my on-the-spot idée réelle, I realised I wasn’t satisfied with it. Maybe it was because the French sailor who asked the question kind of stayed silent for a bit and then tried to lead me, through question, to a better answer. Alas, I was unable to do so in the time it took for topics to change. This question haunted me the 10 miles left we had in the march.

When I go out, what do I want the public to go away with? I finally figured out my idée réelle: This sucks. Life in the military is in no way fun. We may go out and play war on the weekends but the guys who marched marches like I did every day were probably not there for shits and giggles. They were hungry, cold, poorly clad, and lacked every creature comfort they knew. And if I can demonstrate that this sucks to visitors, then I’m happy.

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Photo credit to Dragoon Photography

As a musician, we are the signals for when the men do stuff. When the men heard a drum call, they probably weren’t all “Oh boy! We get to assemble because that means it’s time to burn powder!” They probably were more along of the lines of, “I may die in the next hour.” Musicians witnessed every hardship the common soldier witnessed yet I have guests ask me if because of the fancy uniform I get to eat with the officers or even “ride in the wagons.” (Lady, in my dreams.) Musicians walked like everyone else and ate in messes like everyone else.

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At about 10 miles into the march, the corporal, Vanilla Bean Latte, and Low Spark and I were straggling behind. The corporal said to me, “Ya know, I’m getting real tired of this fake army bullshit. I like to sew cool clothes and look good in them but this is ridiculous.” Maybe it was the pain in our feet talking or that we hadn’t had a break in a long time and our stockings were filling with blood. But in a sense, Aunt Kitty and I have had this talk on countless occasions and many others are in accord with us. Civilian events seem to be where it’s at.

But we’ve also discussed how to make Gun Shows better for everyone involved. And making them better lines up with the whole this sucks theme. I lucked out and avoided the extreme 6  hours of drilling the men did the day before marching. But that was what army life was. It’s not building your dining fly and sitting around drinking Sam Adams with the rest of the guys. It’s wanting to cringe when the officer yells “Fall in!” and the rest of the commands.

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Do these faces look like they’re having fun when the officer is yelling commands?

This doesn’t mean we can’t have fun doing it. And I can totally see how not everyone wants to do this. It takes a real insane person to give up their weekends to drill 6 hours then march 15 miles and mess up your feet for 4 days afterwards. There has to be a middle sometimes and this where you need units that have the comforts of a dining fly and Sam Adams.

I like to think I accomplished a lot this past year in my reenacting career. I left a unit and joined a new one. I’ve made some incredible friends who have a like mind in regards to authenticity. I did some not-so-great events that taught me a lot about what kind of events I do want to attend. I improved my sewing skills (kind of) thanks to a few garments and thousands of errors.

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2016 has some really interesting events lined up along with some secret garments I’ll be spilling the beans about later on once we get under way with them. For now, my hint will come from a Les Misérables song that not only nails the colour scheme, but sums the year up nicely: “Red, a world about to dawn. Black, the night that ends at last.”

“The music of the army being in general very bad…”

Perhaps a quote every Continental fifer or drummer is familiar with can introduce the impending grievances. It was issued by our pal George Washington on June 4th, 1777 in Middlebrook, New Jersey.

The music of the army being in general very bad; it is expected, that the drum and fife majors exert themselves to improve it, or they will be reduced, and their extraordinary pay taken from them.

It always seems that Fort Lee is the event that gets me all in a tizzy afterwards. Over the year, I had been stepping away from the military scene with events like Eastfield and Stamp Act. As Kitty said it best, gun shows aren’t fun anymore. Well, at least shoot-em ups aren’t fun anymore. I like the small events with people of like mind gathered to do living history, not burn powder. Eastfield was definitely one of those where the marriage of guns and purpose merged nicely.

Changes to improve gun shows aren’t that hard, from my perspective. Being a musician, my focus always tends to be on, surprise-surprise, music.

The great thing about being a musician is:

  1. No dirty gun to clean.
  2. So much easier to bring to an event and carry around.
  3. Any changes for authenticity in regards to music tend to be free or cheap in comparison to soldiers.

And that list is barely even all the benefits. For the purpose of this post, let’s take a look at #3. Cheap usually isn’t a word heard when describing this hobby but changing how you play costs only the time of practice.

For example: We know the British marched at two tempos when on parade. A common step of 60 beats per minute (BPM) (one step per second) and a quickstep of 120 beats per minute (two steps per second).* Improving the authenticity of a song means playing at a faster or slower tempo. Even better, you can march the common step while the music plays at a 120 tempo! Just watch the guards do it at Buckingham Palace as they play Duke of York’s March, a tune played by fifers and drummers in the 18th century.

(Yes, in this video their quick march is really at about 105 BPM. To see a true 120, take a gander at this. Though the bagpipes then drag the tempo down to 110)

Often times, people complain how fast 120 BPM is. The newly formed 17th Regiment of Foot does a steady 120, sans drum! Marching to it can be difficult for an extended period but take a look at the length of their steps at 120. They’re not taking gigantic leaps. They’re taking relatively small, measured steps.

So if we have documentation saying the British played at this tempo and that’s what they marched to, then why aren’t we doing it? Because people complain. When I suggested we do it this past weekend, I got told, “Well 120 is authentic, but it’s a bit much.”

The other problem is that there are musicians not practicing the songs at that speed. Men with muskets drill. A lot. It’s kind of expected of the soldiers to be able to perform their respective army’s dill at events and dare I say, perform it well. So why is it that there are musicians out there that think it’s okay not to practice their “drill”?

On to the next problem: accurate instruments. For the most part, I don’t see a whole lot of plastic drum heads that say “REMO” on them anymore and it’s nice to see that most drummers are using calfskin heads. For new fifers, I totally understand cheap fifes. I started off on a cruddy plastic fife from Cooperman. Everybody has to start somewhere. I can understand not wanting to invest in a decent instrument until you know if you’re going to be any good or not. I tell all the new musicians, don’t buy anything more than $100 until you’re absolutely sure you want to be a musician.

But if you’ve been in the hobby now for a substantial amount of time, have established yourself as a musician, you should really get an accurate instrument. Bringing a Civil War fife to a Revolutionary War event is just as bad as bringing your Springfield Model 1861 to Yorktown. Yes, both the Model 1861 and a Brown Bess go “BOOM” when you shoot it, but it isn’t the same. Both fifes serve the same job as fifes but they sound and behave differently.

Steve Dillon makes excellent copies of the Cahusac fife in his collection. You too, can have an exact copy, made of boxwood, in the key of C, in the correct pitch, for a nominal fee. (BAR members even get a discount! I got mine for $65 I believe.) The fife not only plays great, but it looks great! So why play those expensive, incorrect ones when the good stuff is available? Because fifers complain that instead of open fingerings for a C#, it requires two fingers down on the 3rd and 4th holes.

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Touting my pride and joy at the School of the Soldier this past April.

Did it take some retraining on this fife to get the new fingering and the slightly tighter armature? Yeah, it did. But trust me, it’s beyond worth it to be able to say to your audience that you’re playing an exact copy and this is how the music would have sounded to the original listeners. Besides the teaching tool, the Dillon fife sounds amazing and is without a doubt the best fife I’ve ever owned.

My final piece of dirty laundry is documentation for music. Similar to how the uniforms we wear have to be documented with period sources, so should the music we play. It’s impossible to know what songs were played at each battle or each day but there are plenty of sources out there.  For those willing to look on sites like IMSLP, you can find both Thompson and Aird’s tutors for fifes. The BAR has published a lovely book with period fife and drum music taken from primary sources. The drum notation was even “translated” into modern notation for those that read sheet music.

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You can even make a trip to your local university’s special collection! I went to Brown University’s special collection and got to look at RI fifer’s William William’s manuscript. All I had to do was ask.

But even within the BAR book, stuff has to be taken with a grain of salt. For example, would the British play songs written by Americans? Probably not as they don’t show up in British tutors until after the war. Did the Americans play British songs? All the time as evidenced by repeats of songs in American sources that were in British sources.

One of my favourite songs to play is Stony Point. It’s found only in American fife books so it’s pretty safe to say this piece was written after the Continental Army’s victory there on July 16th, 1779. So here’s an example of a period song from the Revolution that shouldn’t be played at events that take place before this battle. The context just wouldn’t make sense. It would require me telling visitors, “Well mam, that last piece was called ‘Stony Point.’ It’s a song about a battle the Americans won in 1779 but we’re currently at Trenton in 1776 so we don’t know about that battle yet.”

So why this rant? Because I’m growing tired of the nonsense.

I’m tired of hearing made-up parleys on the battlefield when we have one from an original source that’s in the BAR Music Book used by all 3 of the umbrella organisations in the hobby.

I’m tired of seeing videos of battle reenactments where musicians are playing concerts of marches on the battlefield when we know musicians were essentially stretcher bearers doing the occasional signal.

I’m tired of officers in battle telling me to stand behind the line and just twiddle my thumbs when I want to stand behind the sergeant to hear the orders so we can play the signal if necessary or take away the wounded because there’s documentation for that.

I’m tired of marching at 100 beats per minute as a quickstep.

I’m tired of hearing 19th century tunes (I’m looking at you, Men of Harlech) at 18th century events.

I’m tired of going to events, knowing all the camp duties fifers and drummers played from sunrise to sunset and never playing a single one of them besides Drummer’s Call and Assembly.

I’m tired of playing cease fire a crap ton of times because officers don’t know what it means and they then continue to have their units burn powder as if the battle was their last reenactment ever.

But most of all, I’m tired of my suggestions/complaints falling on deaf ears. It’s disheartening to share this information with people to have them not put it to use. It sucks trying to teach a regiment the signals (making recordings so they can listen to them at home, giving them music lessons, etc.) and them never implementing them into the camp. It sucks telling the people in charge of you this, armed with all this documentation and they still won’t budge.

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You don’t even have to carry a heavy guy! We chose a very tiny 13 year old. Photo credit to Suzanne Shaw Photography.

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You don’t even need more than one musician!

These fixes aren’t hard. I’m not asking folks to go out and sew all new outfits out of $75 per yard wool. I’m not asking anybody to sleep on wet hay on the ground. I instead challenge others to put some effort into their impression. Practice your fife or drum a few times during the week. Think before you play a piece, “Is there documentation for it?” You’ll be amazed at just how far the authenticity for the unit and the event will improve when you use music correctly.But most importantly, question what you’ve been taught. I started learning the ways of the Spirit of ’76 and when I began to question what I was doing, everything fell into place. I no longer play undocumented songs on a replica civil war fife during battles.

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So, where does all this leave me? Part of me sees the mess that the state of music is currently in and desires to stop playing at events. Things were so much easier three years ago when I just showed up at events and fired a musket and was ignorant to everything. However, it seems that a few of us are splintering off and forming our own “band”, both of fifes and drums and of music. A group of like minded, dare I say, progressive, individuals getting together to do martial music the right way.

Even the Continental Army music improved after some hardcore practicing. Washington put it best when he said in that same order:

Nothing is more agreeable, and ornamental, than good music; every officer, for the credit of his corps, should take care to provide it.

*See Camus, Raoul F. Military Music of the American Revolution. 1st ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1976. 7-9.

On Coming Out in the Hobby

Today is National Coming Out Day. A day to celebrate the struggle members of the LGBTQ deal with on coming out and to celebrate who they are.

There’s a very select few people in the hobby that know that I’m gay. I mean, after all, it is a hobby that prides itself on wearing colourful clothing, hand-sewing it all, and hairpieces. Sometimes I question if we’re all borderline drag queens. It’s not that I’m ashamed of who I am, all my friends know and so does my immediate family. I even attend Pride on an annual basis.

But coming out in the hobby is similar to coming out to your parents again. These are people you spend A LOT of time with. You go over their houses for workshops, you go on long car rides, you go camping together, and you even eat out together. So when you they know you as one person, you only hope that when they find out they won’t treat you any differently.

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You can’t help but wonder before saying it, “Will I be put in a separate tent? Will I be denied (the pretend) rank because of this? Will units not talk to me? Will I be kicked out of the unit?” and I think that’s why a lot of members of the LGBT community in the hobby keep their sexuality either hidden from mostly everyone or don’t tell anyone at all.

Besides the few outspoken members of the LGBT in the hobby, a lot of us remain in the shadows, content to put on the facade for one more weekend. For a long time, I was happy with that. Going reenacting reminded me of before I initially came out of the closet, before everything got more difficult. But it’s still not easy. I couldn’t talk about a significant other with gender specific terms. I always referred to my (now ex) boyfriend as “they” or “date”. My career in acting always came to use around the campfire when I successfully discussed the wonders of girls and which one was the prettiest.

I suppose there’s a point where everyone gets tired of putting up with something. I originally began writing this piece in the middle of March with the intent on publishing it today. I tossed and turned for awhile about actually posting this piece or not but I think it’s important.

It gets better. Any campfire unwilling to accept me in the evening isn’t really a campfire I want to sit around anyways. Any unit, despite how much lace on the coats, that won’t accept somebody for who they are isn’t a unit I want to be in.

The people that knew about my sexuality before this post accepted me with open arms and for once, I think this generally misogynistic, sometimes backwards hobby can be up with the times. That’s not to say some pokey militia out of a conservative area of the US won’t backlash over more of us coming out of the woodwork of the last refuge of “True Americana”, it’s just easier not to listen to the large man yelling at you.

Besides, George Washington owes the success of his army after Valley Forge to a gay man.

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General Baron von Steuben by Ralph Earl, 1786

Some Revision Required

It’s that end of the semester rush. I’ve been locked in my room these past two weeks writing papers ranging from imperialistic perspectives in British media covering Rhodesia’s UDI to modern contestations to the Falklands’ sovereignty. My fingers are itching to get back to sewing next week. That frock coat WILL be finished by the end of May. The breeches by mid-June (Knowing me, probably not.) and some sort of a waistcoat by July for L’Hermoinee.

As I write these papers, I notice the amounts of revision I have to do. My first attempt is close-ish. My second attempt is closer. My third attempt is pretty good. Hopefully my fourth attempt will be an A. But I notice this same pattern in my reenacting hobby.

My very first uniform was 18th century-ish. You could tell I was aiming for 18th century with my local militia company but stuff wasn’t quite there. The coat is totally wrong. The breeches, gaiters, and waistcoat are all way too big. But this was my very first uniform and I had no clue about anything 18th century. I was an 8th grader at the time after all.

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The beginning of my “never look into the camera” phase. This would be a Continental Soldier circa 1976.

My second attempt was getting better. I was getting closer, that’s for sure but it still wasn’t great. I’d give this a C. I’ve ditched the coat but instead I’m wearing the season’s hottest night gown (hunting frock), ill fitting breeches, modern shoes, and bad stockings. But the ideas are getting better!

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My third attempt was probably a C+, maybe a B-. The colour of the small clothes was off (Red when they should’ve been white.) But this is where I made the most improvement. I ditched the Velcro neckstock and changed to black silk. I stopped wearing the ill-patterned bearskin cap and switched to a cocked hat towards the end of my stay with that regiment. The fit of the clothes though were really good.

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54th Regiment of Foot: Take One

Attempt 3.5. My last event with the 54th. Probably the closest that kit was to being better.

Attempt 3.5. My last event with the 54th. Probably the closest that kit was to being better. Note: The feathers pointing straight up was me goofing around.

Now at my fourth attempt, I still wouldn’t give myself an A. I’d say a solid B is in order. The rope on my fife case cord is gonna be switched to hemp. I need to make a hunting frock like the one I’m wearing, a better waistcoat, and some osnaburg overalls. And the hat has to be made but lets not push it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with my wool overalls. They fit really well, that’s for sure and they’re nice and toasty. But osnaburg is more appropriate for this impression.

10th MA Light Infantry Fifer circa 1781

10th MA Light Infantry Fifer circa 1781

My point here is that reenacting is a learning experience. Almost nobody starts off at the A level. Like writing a paper, you need a rough draft. That draft is gonna be really crappy. Then your paper improves and becomes more nuanced. You should never judge a final draft based on what the first draft looked like. Stuff evloves and ultimately becomes a completely different thing. For some people, their impressions change in the course of a year. For me, it’s been almost 8 years of moving forward.

Just doing what you do right can inspire people to make changes. I remember the first time I saw my current regiment in the field. It was 2012 at a BAR show at Nathan Hale Homestead in Coventry, CT. Watching men in cut-down coats and leather caps come storming out of the corn field looked like a blast and I wanted to be a part of that. I had no clue that they had research behind their clothing. That was my first battle even firing a musket so fit of clothing was the last thing on my mind. But in the back of my head, I knew this group had something going on. About 2 and a half years later, I drank the Kool-Aid and joined them.

Besides this post being a timeline of my evolution through puberty, it’s shows me maturing through the hobby. I like research now. I love learning about uniforms and music. Eighth grade me would think I’m nuts, spending all my hours in databases looking for articles and images. Hell, college sophomore me thinks I’m nuts. That’s not the point though. I would argue I’m a different person than I was then and most people would agree and can relate to that. So, if you meet a former or current “farb” who wants to improve or has done so, treat them as you would anybody else. If it wasn’t for all the people (and there’s so many) guiding me along the way, I would never have gotten to where I am. You might not see the effects of your help right away. They may take eight years to show but eventually changes will start to show.